Music without words cannot really mean anything, no matter how hard composers try. 

In September, the Ureuk Symphony Orchestra gave a concert in New York billed as a “Peace Korea Concert.” The orchestra is the project of Christopher Joonmoo Lee, who appears to be involved in both conducting and finance. He lives in New Jersey but is “a frequent visitor to Pyongyang”.

I have quoted a report in the Wall Street Journal by Jonathan Cheng and Timothy W Martin. They further report that Maestro Lee is a supporter of North Korea’s nuclear programme. He makes this clear on his Facebook page and in blog posts.

The “peace” concert was timed to coincide with the opening of the United Nations’ General Assembly. North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, attended the concert, with an entourage. The next day, he gave a spectacularly belligerent speech in the General Assembly.

At the concert, the audience heard Brahms and Rachmaninoff – and then a sampling of “Korean Orchestra Music”. This music included Footsteps, which turns out to be a paean to the current North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. The lyrics hail “the footsteps of our General Kim” and declare: “The whole nation follows as one – step, step, step.”

There was no singing in this concert, however. There were North Korean propaganda songs, but they were performed in purely orchestral versions. One song praised the entire Kim dynasty; another called for the unification of the Korean Peninsula under Pyongyang.

How much did the players themselves know? Some portion of them were just locals, working. The Wall Street Journal reporters questioned a cellist. He said, “I wasn’t sure what all the music meant. It just seemed kind of militaristic.” A violinist confessed that she knew, but pleaded that she was just doing a job and that “the art on its own does not hurt anyone.”

Oh? That is a very interesting subject. As the reporters noted, “musical performances in Manhattan, enemy territory, are particularly prized pieces of propaganda back home.” Yes, indeed. The Ureuk orchestra performs regularly in New York, and its concerts are celebrated by North Korean state media as great national victories.

We do not always know what we’re hearing, do we? I think back to the mid-1980s, when the United States had hostages in Lebanon. Muhammad Ali, the boxing hero, went to try to negotiate their release. He was greeted at a mosque by a chanting mob. He pumped his fist along with them.

In 2011, there was another concert, this one at the White House. Actually, it was a state dinner, in honor of Hu Jintao, who was then the boss of the Chinese Communist Party. Entertainment was provided by Lang Lang, the Chinese pianist. He is a Party official, too: a vice-chairman of the All China Youth Federation. As such, he is pledged to uphold and instil “Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, and Jiang Zemin’s ‘Three Represents’ ”.

Lang Lang played a song without words (to borrow a phrase from Mendelssohn). What I should say is, Lang Lang played a song that has words, but he played a purely pianistic version of it. There was no singing along.

The song is My Motherland, from the Chinese movie The Battle of Triangle Hill. Chances are, you don’t know this song, or the movie, but Chinese people do. The movie is a propaganda flick about the Korean War. The song refers to Americans as “wolves” or “jackals,” and declares that China will use its weapons to deal with them.

It was Lang Lang’s choice to play this song at the White House. He told an interviewer, “I thought to play My Motherland because I think playing the tune at the White House banquet can help us, as Chinese people, feel extremely proud of ourselves and express our feelings through the song.” Hu Jintao was moved. Normally a man of distinct reserve, he embraced Lang Lang that night, emotionally.

A Chinese psychiatrist living in Philadelphia, Yang Jingduan, remarked on the effect of My Motherland in the White House. He told the Epoch Times, “In the eyes of all Chinese, this will not be seen as anything other than a big insult to the US. It’s like insulting you to your face and you don’t know it. It’s humiliating.”

We do not always know what we’re hearing, do we? I think back to the mid-1980s, when the United States had hostages in Lebanon. Muhammad Ali, the boxing hero, went to try to negotiate their release. He was greeted at a mosque by a chanting mob. He pumped his fist along with them.

It transpired that they were chanting “Death to America”, “Death to Reagan”. Ali explained that, not being an Arabic speaker, he had no idea what they were saying. He simply “felt good”. What’s more, “we are all brothers – black, white, yellow, blue”.

Music without words cannot really mean anything, no matter how hard composers try. They can cheat, by quoting Happy Birthday, for example, or a national anthem. (Think of Tchaikovsky in the 1812 Overture.) But notes without words can strike listeners all sorts of ways, intended or unintended.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the late British composer, wrote a string quartet about the Iraq War. I should really put “about” in quotation marks. Sir Peter meant to depict and denounce that war. But unless you are clued in – by reading a programme note, for example – you are simply listening to a string quartet. (And a good one.)

I myself would not sit still for North Korean propaganda, if I knew what I was listening to. What the Kim dictators have done to people under their control is evil beyond utterance. But I have listened to Footsteps on YouTube, played by the mighty Ureuk forces. Kind of catchy, actually. It would serve as the soundtrack for a cheap war movie, set somewhere in the vague East. My Motherland may have competition.